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Comment: Taxpayers deserve much better than secrecy and excuses
When you hear politicians talk about taxpayers’ money, the tone adopted is usually one of reverence bordering on religious deference.
We often hear how hard they are working to ensure “value” for the taxpayer and horror expressed at any perceived waste of their residents’ hard-earned cash.
Yet when it comes to letting taxpayers know exactly how their money is being spent, the tone can change abruptly.
Rarely do politicians or bureaucrats see the necessity of being open with the residents they govern about financial matters. We are expected to trust on faith alone that our well-meaning rulers are being prudent and judicious with the cash we stump up every month.
However this trust must be wearing particularly thin with residents in Three Rivers.
This week, the district council finally reached a settlement for compensation over the £9 million debacle that was the William Penn Leisure Centre re-build.
It was in March 2007 that the diggers first rolled in for what was meant to be a £3 million project lasting less than a year and causing the minimum of disruption.
Within months it became clear this would not be the case, with the district council blaming “construction delays”. The opening was pushed back to June 2008.
Delays are not uncommon with large-scale projects so at that point, few would have anticipated the farce that followed.
June came and went with residents still denied access to one of the district’s most popular leisure facilities as it emerged that an additional £1 million was added to the bill.
At the same time it became clear all was not well between the council, architects Atkins and Gee Construction.
But instead of openly telling residents what was going on, the council fobbed them off with questionable statements about not wanting to sacrifice quality for speed.
Time after time the promised completion date was missed and all the while millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money had disappeared into a black hole far deeper than the pool it was supposed to be funding.
By early 2009, the council had had enough and sacked Gee in order to manage the project themselves – a decision that was later condemned by an independent inspector.
It is around this time that the council, perhaps concerned about an imminent legal case or perhaps worried about the colossal overspend, decided to keep key figures such as the escalating cost and the expected completion date out of the public domain citing our old friend “commercial confidentiality”.
By the time of the centre’s beleaguered opening in May 2010 £6 million had been added onto the council’s budget for the project – tripling the initial spending projection – but still these figures were hushed up and discussed behind closed doors while calls for the leisure portfolio holder Councillor Chris Whately-Smith to resign went unanswered.
The saga finally reached a climax last week when a settlement was agreed between the council, Gee and Atkins.
Once again the council refused to tell taxpayers that they had only managed to claw back a fraction of the overspend.
The council says a confidentiality clause in the legal agreement prevents disclosure of how much has been recouped from the £9m outlay.
But the council should not allow itself to be gagged by private companies – especially when it is the Three Rivers taxpayer who is being asked to pick up the bill.